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School Voucher Measure Cuts Against the Grain

It’s getting harder and harder to put the Southland’s inner cities and suburbs into neat ideological boxes.

That’s especially true in the fall campaign for Proposition 174, the proposed constitutional amendment that would require the state to give yearly vouchers, or scholarships, worth about $2,600 to parents who choose to send a child to private school.

If I were putting people in boxes, I’d expect most folks in the inner city to be against the measure. The inner city, according to the stereotype, is poor, pro-government, pro-public school and pro-union. The last point is important because the main financial backer of the campaign against Proposition 174 is the California Teachers Assn., the teachers union.

I’d expect people in the suburbs to be more affluent, more conservative and therefore more susceptible to the campaign’s slogan, “A Better Choice.”

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But that’s not what’s happening. In the early stages of campaigning, the pro-voucher side is working hard in African-American and Latino areas, trying to capitalize on discontent with inner-city public schools.

How would vouchers help poor families? Proponents say that the $2,600 voucher would pay for all, or at least a substantial part of tuition in small private schools they expect to open if the measure passes. The voucher would also be a big help to families who already have their children in private schools. This is especially important in the Latino community, with its heavy enrollment in Catholic schools.

Opponents of the voucher measure, on the other hand, are concentrating their early campaigning in the mostly white, middle-class and affluent suburbs of the South Bay, the San Gabriel Valley and the San Fernando Valley. There, in Republican-leaning territory, the public school remains the heart and soul of the community. And parents, afraid of hurting their public schools, know that the vouchers would drain tax money from them.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson discovered how the suburbanites feel during the long budget fight last year when some Republican lawmakers from these areas objected to his proposed public education cuts. A wiser Wilson left the schools alone this year.

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So I wasn’t surprised when I found a Republican campaign manager in charge when I visited the No on 174 campaign headquarters near Los Angeles International Airport. Rick Manter, in fact, is so Republican that he was a top strategist for ultraconservative Bruce Herschensohn, a GOP candidate for Senate last year.

In another contradiction in this campaign, the headquarters is located in the offices of the California Teachers Assn., which has long been allied with a Democrat whom Republicans enjoy hating, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

“Fundamentally, the campaign strategy is that we must attract the vote of the suburban voters to win,” Manter said. And he’s got a big budget to do the job. “If it gets down to mortgaging the building, or what, it will be done,” he said.

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Suburban voters are also targets for the “A Better Choice” organization, which is running the Yes on 174 campaign and also has some Republican consultants at the helm. Although they know how to campaign in the suburbs, at this point they are spending much of their time in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We are finding an interest in the African-American community, but there is a question of how it will work,” said Andrew Cunningham, the Yes campaign’s South-Central L.A. director. Doubters, he said, ask whether “the public schools will be a cesspool of the unwashed and unwanted. I tell them that is not going to be the case.”

In the Latino community, the Yes on 174 campaigners are hoping for support from large numbers of Catholic school parents.

The potential in these neighborhoods was revealed two years ago by a statewide poll of 800 voters by Arnold Steinberg and Anna David. The pollsters asked people whether they favored state payments to parents who choose to send their children to private schools. African-American support was 76.4%, Latinos were 74.5% and Asian-Americans 78.9%.

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This poll indicates that education, like crime, is one of those highly personal issues that cuts across ideology, party affiliation and even income.

That is why the California Teachers Assn. has downplayed ideology, putting on a Republican face for the campaign and hoping that some of its more liberal ideologues spend the next two months in a closet.

As evidence of the early success of the CTA’s suburban strategy, a UC Irvine poll last week showed that 42% of the likely voters in conservative, suburban Orange County support Proposition 174, while 44% oppose the vouchers. Because voters such as these have the highest turnouts, the poll is bad news for the Yes on 174 side.

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But voucher opponents should not count on the measure’s defeat. They cannot ignore the hostility toward the public schools in poor and lower middle-class neighborhoods that were once the educational system’s greatest supporters.

This is something new and volatile in the Southland political mix.


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